I’m willing to put up with a lot of crap in order to enjoy a good idea and that tolerance for all things awful served me quite well when it came to Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. Acting as a gaiden to the core Ninja Gaiden series, Yaiba is a unique little side story featuring characters and concepts from the mind of gaming royalty, Keiji Inafune. More importantly Yaiba acts as a way for the Ninja Gaiden series to shed its self serious nature for a little bit and revel in the stupidity of its hyper violent world of ninjas and boob physics. Sadly though the execution of this, done by Spark Unlimited of Legendary “fame”, is not exactly as stellar as you might hope and while it keeps the Ninja Gaiden degree of difficulty, it loses much of the series’ sense of precision which acts as its ultimate downfall.
Before we get into the failures of the gameplay though let’s talk about the story because the premise here is quite solid and the writing, while very crass, has a certain charm. The story is that you are a ninja by the name of Yaiba who foolishly challenged Ninja Gaiden protagonist Ryu Hayabusa to a duel and was cut down like every other idiot in pajamas who has ever stood in his way. Death doesn’t stop Yaiba for long though as he’s brought back to life thanks to some crazy cyborg tech courtesy of the scientific genius Ms. Monday and her boss, a billionaire Playboy named Del Gonzo. It seems Del Gonzo wants Ryu dead and he brought you back to finish the job and let you exact your revenge. From there you get dropped off into a zombie outbreak in the Ukraine that Hayabusa is trying to stop so you can track him down and make him deader than the things he’s hunting. It gives the player a solid motivation and it’s a unique twist on the franchise that works nicely with how utterly stupid, cruel, and just ridiculous the rest of the game happens to be.
You’re the bad guy and the game has fun with that, rather than stoically slicing down enemies, Yaiba swears and laughs maniacally as he eviscerates and brutally executes his undead foes so he can use their arms as nun-chuks (no seriously, he does that, regularly). Monday and Del Gonzo are there to provide some amoral scenery chewing support with lots of fun monologues and decently humorous conversations with Yaiba that while never hysterically funny, do give the game a sadistically light tone and showcase the characters wallowing in their own crapulence. Unfortunately the fairly funny side chatter is somewhat ruined by the fact that Yaiba as a character is insanely flat and doesn’t really have much to say beyond “You’re next Hayabusa” and “FUCK“. It’s a pity because his compatriots actually manage to be somewhat entertaining and in comparison Yaiba just looks like a really poorly written version of the Joker, all of the gleefully psychotic rage but with none of the subtle mystery or chaotic genius to make that anger interesting or clever.
Speaking of Yaiba’s deficiencies, why don’t we move into the gameplay and talk about how what could have been a neat inversion of the Ninja Gaiden formula ended up as a bit of a clunky mess. The basic gameplay here is character action taking place in closed areas versus masses of weaker enemies interspersed with more challenging foes. It’s similar to the standard Ninja Gaiden gameplay but different as rather than stylishly taking on smaller numbers of skilled opponents like Ryu does, Yaiba wades through an onslaught of less capable baddies like a ninja version of the lawnmower scene in Brain Dead/Dead Alive. This is because Yaiba is a fair deal less precise than Ryu, his attacks are much more wild and crazy, and his overall style is more akin to that of a dumbed down version of Kratos, with lots of focus on crowd control, big hits, and executing weakened enemies. In fact those God of War style finishing animations form a core part of the gameplay as not only do you get more points for doing them (which feeds into a moderately helpful upgrade system) but they’re also your main source of regaining your health and finding new weapons. Every zombie you kill with a finisher will drop a health glyph and whenever Yaiba kills a special zombie with a finisher he’ll rip a chunk off of them to use a weapon. These abominable armaments form the backbone of the game’s elemental system which allows you to mix fire, bile, and electricity to wonderful effect by hitting an appropriately flavoured enemy with the right kind of disgusting defensive implement.
The sheer combat here, despite it being somewhat unrefined, does work fairly well and it has a lot of systems that nicely complement each other but the gameplay overall is far from perfect. For example, the game does have a counter mechanic but the timing on it is so specific that I rarely used it outside of situations that demanded it. This is only made worse by the game’s insanely terrible camera that you have no real control over. It does a decent job of framing the center of the fight but once you move near the edges of the area, all you can see is close-ups of zombies and attack animations; as you can imagine this means that you’re not going to be seeing any enemies that are more than four feet away from you and more importantly you won’t be seeing any of the projectiles that they’re firing at you. Another area in which Yaiba feels woefully insufficient is the platforming which is all super constricted. First off there is no free jump, the A button acts as a dash instead, and you only get to jump when you hit specific platforming sections which are basically just glorified QTEs. These sections aren’t entirely awful but they’re not that interesting and later on in the game the timing in them can get a little too tight for their own good. It feels like they made a real misstep in completely removing the ability to jump around freely as it could have been used to great effect in the combat and the dash could have easily been put on the right stick. I have some other issues with the gameplay I could go into such as the fact that the distribution of enemies feels completely unbalanced or I could talk about the repeated glitches, which twice required me to quit to the menu so I could restart from my last checkpoint, but I’d just be gilding the lily or I suppose dribbling on the toilet seat as is the case here.
Like everything else in this game, the presentation is a mixed bag but it is where some of the game’s true charm really comes through. Visually it’s got a comic book style semi-cell-shaded look going on that really works well with both the silliness of the writing and the obscene amounts of gore on display. Especially noteworthy is the animations which are actually pretty fun to watch, the executions move fast and feel vicious and there’s enough different ones that they don’t feel too repetitive; they’re also quite creative and you’ll get to enjoy such brutal acts as Yaiba cutting off a zombie’s forearm and then ramming it down said zombie’s throat. The animation is also where you’ll get the most mileage when it comes to comedy because the game is packed with some surprisingly funny visual gags. Whether it’s random zombies doing the thriller dance, Yaiba kicking a disembodied yet sentient pair of legs in the nuts, or a wordless Three-Stooges-esque zombie to zombie interaction in which a fire zombie roasts a regular zombie who’s asking for light, these random bits of visual humor always made me crack a slight smile. As for the audio side of things, the voice acting is pretty good, all of Del Gonzo’s lines are delivered like he’s trying to seduce the microphone which is pretty funny and it sets the goofy tone up nicely. My only real quibble with the VO is that Yaiba and Ryu both sound very similar and neither has anything particularly interesting to say. The music (what little of it there is) sadly happens to be of a lesser quality; the main theme sounds like someone constantly rewinding a Skrillex song and the battles all feel oddly silent and really could have used some outrageously good/bad Metal Gear Rising style butt rock or some face melting Heavy Metal.
I had a hard time deciding on a score for this game because I’m still unsure whether I truly dislike it or not. Yaiba is utter crap, there’s no getting around that, but between the fun concept, surprisingly decent humor, and occasionally fun combat, I just can’t bring myself to hate it. Despite the low score I’m giving this game, if you’ve got an afternoon to spare (it’s pretty short, only about 4-6 hours) it’s worth blowing through it on easy for a quick laugh and a decently fun time. Just wait for a sale before you pick this one up, it is in no way worth the $60 they’re asking for it. So with all that considered, I’m giving Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z a 2 out of 5 stars, while I still absolutely love the concept here, Yaiba doesn’t manage to truly deliver on any front.